Herbert Lin

Youth, Pornography, and the Internet

VTR Date: May 9, 2002

Guest: Lin, Herbert Ph.D.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Herbert Lin, Ph.D.
Title: “Youth, Pornography and the Internet”
VTR: 5/9/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And several times over the years I’ve discussed with guests here at this table the very dicey question of what impact harsh media content may have on our children. And what to do about it. Harsh violence, which perhaps bothers me the most, as a father, grandfather and concerned citizen.

But also ever harsher language, sexuality, and thematic material as well. I simply can’t believe that the good society we all wish for our own children and others could possibly result from their immersion in an ever-expanding cesspool of media muck. And I don’t believe that conclusion necessarily lines me up with the would-be censors of our society. Those who don’t and never have cared for maintaining free speech in American life.

As a teacher, a broadcaster, an American historian I always have cared. Cared so much about maintaining our liberties, our devotion to free speech, that I don’t want to let those who make commerce out of exposing our youngsters to tough violence, sexuality, language and other harsh content have their way with our kids, freely exploiting them and the rest of us simply because they ply their trade in the name of a free and open marketplace.

That’s why I was so intrigued the other day to see still another story in the press headlined “No Easy Fixes Are Seen to Cure Sex Site Access.” John Schwartz in The New York Times writes, “One of the most thorough reports ever produced on protecting children from Internet pornography has concluded that neither tougher laws nor new technology alone can solve the problem.”

He then quotes the authors of a new National Research Council Report “Youth, Pornography and The Internet” as writing, “that though some might wish otherwise, no single approach … technical, legal, economic or educational, will be sufficient. Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all these elements.”

And that, of course, to many of us may sound once again terribly much like a draw. With nothing substantial being recommended about the very real problem before us and nothing very much being done. Which, in turn, may not be fair.

And so I want to put that thought right smack before my guest today, Dr. Herbert Lin, Senior Scientist and Staff Officer at the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies.

Dr. Lin, the Director of the study at issue was quoted in The New York times as saying, “that the process shook the preconceptions that each participant brought to the table. Many of them believing at the beginning if only people would just do “this” … whatever “this” is, the problem would be all over.”

“Nobody realized,” he said, “how complicated the process was.” Well, I very much realized that for as Chair for 20 years of Hollywood’s voluntary movie rating system, I know how complicated the process is. But I also want to begin today by asking my guest if he thinks the problem of children being confronted right in our own homes with ever harsher media content, on the Web or on television or in video games, or in movies, and with violence appropriately considered pornographic, too, whether this problem must simply be dismissed as totally intractable, totally beyond a free societies control. I know that’s a big question, but it’s the one I want to put to you.

LIN: Different people have different views on what counts as harsh or inappropriate. That’s one of the things that we had to face when we did this study. In fact a large number of the concerns that we had in doing the study revolved around this very question. “What defines inappropriate?” And the Committee of 16 … 15 people all had different views on what constitutes inappropriate. That doesn’t mean there was no overlap, and so for some areas, there was a lot of overlap. But for other areas there wasn’t. Is it an intractable problem? Depends upon what you mean by intractable. Are there things that you could … are you going to make the problem go away entirely? Probably not. Are there things that you can do … that society can do, that law can do, that technology can do, that parents can do, that schools can do to make the problem better, to help solve the problem to some extent? Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what we, that’s what we found.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute. Going back to the Supreme Court Justices whole business about the definition of pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” … didn’t those people, and I’ve read who they were … very competent, distinguished, accomplished people … wasn’t there some basic agreement on what they saw, they knew was not appropriate for young people?

LIN: The test that the Court defined … first of all was not for pornography, because pornography is an undefined concept …

HEFFNER: Okay, okay.

LIN: … it was for obscenity. And for obscenity there is a three part test which I can’t remember all the parts of, but one of them has to do with the extent to which the material violates the contemporary community standards in which it’s, in which it’s displayed. And there are different communities in this country. So Memphis, Tennessee is different than San Francisco, California. And so what might be obscene in Memphis, may not be obscene in San Francisco.

HEFFNER: You hold to that. You really believe that you couldn’t take a cross section of the people … leaving out the people who have a financial interest in pushing this stuff. Leaving out the people who are congenitally desirous of censoring stuff. But taking the great middle group of us … most parents, let’s say … and you wouldn’t find some basic agreement?

LIN: That’s a different … that’s a somewhat different question.

HEFFNER: How so?

LIN: What we said in the report was that for the Committee, for example, we used the Committee as a microcosm of, of the nation, which it was in this regard, because we have different views of what’s appropriate and inappropriate. There is some set of material for which there is a large amount of consensus on most of the members of the Committee, essentially all of them that says, “I don’t want my kids to be exposed to that.” There’s no question that there’s a consensus on that kind of material. And its what one might consider “hard core”, okay? Or extreme … a phrase we use in the report is “extreme”. But there is a lot of other material that some people would say, might say is “pornographic” or “inappropriate” and other people would not.

Here’s a good example of that. Is it good or not good, is it appropriate or not appropriate to have information available on alternative sexual lifestyles? On what it means to be homosexual? On what it means to be “gay” or lesbian in orientation. Is it good or bad to have material on the Web, for example, that describes a person who is homosexual, experiences with that and what the joys that he or she receives from, from that lifestyle. Is this a good or a bad thing? I know some people who would say “this is a bad thing and is inappropriate” and counts as “pornographic” and other people say, “No, this is useful information to be out there.” When I say that there’s disagreement, it’s that … it’s that category of material that, that I mean.

HEFFNER: Well, I suppose I come to this from my own experience as Chair of the rating system, because our job was to make an educated guess …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … which many movie makers hated us for making, or said “how in the world do you know?” To make an educated guess as to what most parents, concerned parents, we didn’t take … we weren’t taking into consideration, admittedly, those who would put their children up for obscene or pornographic or violent scenes …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … to be filmed that way. But we were saying “most parents”. I mean one has to have some sense of who we are. Of who we are in this country, in largest part knowing that there are many others who feel that even mentioning the word “homosexual” is not permissible …

LIN: MmmHmmm

HEFFNER: … and so from that point of view, I would assume, that you could derive a common sense of the matter. And you’re saying, “really couldn’t.”

LIN: As a, as a practical matters it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible to, to do that. That’s one of the reasons that we very much say that the balance that we talked about in, in the article that was quoted is that the balance, how you mix technology, policy, schooling, education and parental involvement, and so on, all depends on the individual community. It’s a question of values. How that community feels about certain things.

HEFFNER: There is no American community then?

LIN: Let me give you an extreme case. Okay?

HEFFNER: That won’t do us any good.

LIN: Well, but … you’ll see … you’ll see why in ….


LIN: … you’ll see why in a minute. I … I can sit here and tell you that I know how to make a perfect technological fix to this problem, contrary to what’s in the report, okay? And when I describe it to you, you say, “You’re right, you can”. Of course, you’ll see the problems immediately with it. “Here’s my new version of a filter. Okay, It’s a block, and I put in a, a cable port on this side, and a cable port on this side. And it’s a solid brick. This is made of stone. Okay?” This filter will now filter out every bad piece of information, every piece of inappropriate information that you would ever want to keep your kids away from. Works perfectly. Guarantee it.”

Of course, it comes at a cost, right? The cost of it is that you can’t get any good information, any useful information out of it, either. There are parents for whom this is an appropriate solution. They are so worried about the corrosive, corrupting whatever effects of exposure to, to bad information, that they’re not even willing to take one chance, a single … expose themselves to the smallest likelihood that their kids would be exposed to it. And what we say in the report … if you want … that’s the way you feel about it, this is an alternative.

Of course there are other methods to do this, too. For example. We talk about … in the report … the fact that you can set up, what we call “white lists”, these are services … certain Internet service providers will guarantee that all of their content, all the content they make available to you is “family friendly”. And what they do is they explicitly look at ten, a hundred, a thousand, two hundred thousand, million sites … out of a billion. And say, “this is okay. This stuff is okay for kids to, to look at.”

And if you subscribe to the values of this organization, than this is a good thing for you to be doing. If you want to do that, you can do that. And this is a, you know, not a bad way to do that. We just don’t think that this is a solution that’s appropriate for everybody. And so you can go down that … so I’ve taken the first … the first step was the brick. The second step was the “white-listed” Internet service providers.

I can go all the way down to something that’s just a … you know, through cable that gives you everything, it’s completely unblocked and so on. Different people will want to place their solution at different places along that continuum.

HEFFNER: Tell me, I … a question occurred to me as I read the Report …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … which you were kind enough to send me. Was there a sense of failure? I, I, I should throw in another word … frustration … because then you can grab hold of that. That had to be a frustrating experience.

LIN: It was frustrating in the sense that we didn’t find any silver bullets. Would we like there to be a silver bullet? Of course. It would be wonderful to have a silver bullet. It would be wonderful to have free energy. It would be wonderful if the laws of physics could be violated, too. Unfortunately …

HEFFNER: Wait. It’ll happen.

LIN: We’ll see. I’m a physicist … I’m not so sanguine about that. But, okay.

HEFFNER: What though about the question of not trying to deal with the receiver, which is where you have your problems, but with the sender …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … the person who sends this material. The equipment that sends it.

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: There must have been concern about that. And that as a possible solution. That, the direction in which you can find the solution.

LIN: There is … actions by the providers of content, by the content providers definitely have some role to play in all of this. There’s just no question about that.

HEFFNER: Why do you same “some”, they provide all … they’re providing what it is that we’re concerned about.

LIN: Let me give you an example. We spoke to some people who asserted that the statues of the Greek Gods were pornographic.

HEFFNER: The Attorney General?

LIN: No, not the Attorney General, but we talked to some people in some communities who felt that this was the, who felt that this was the case. Are you going to hold the museum that puts a picture up, liable for that? Preventing them from doing it.

HEFFNER: So you come back again to the point you make, and I see the legitimacy of it, that there is no basic agreement and if there is no agreement …

LIN: There’s agreement on some part of it. There is no basic agreement on all of it.

HEFFNER: But so what? My answer would be, “You’re right. On all of it there is no agreement. You’re not going to get people who were brought up with values that are consistent with the Old Deep South …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … to say the same thing as those who were brought up in San Francisco, perhaps. Okay? But you seem to be saying, again and again there is no common core or that the … your, your Commission is saying “there is no common core to which we can repair”, talking about a community, talk about a national community. Most people within that national community.

LIN: As a statement of, of … statement of First Amendment jurisprudence and Supreme Court decisions, there is no such thing as a national community …


LIN: … that’s relevant to this. And …

HEFFNER: Okay, so we come back now to, to the legal question …

LIN: Well that could be changed … but that’s … but the way, the way it is now for twenty five years the Miller decision has been, been applicable. The Supreme Court has not defined a national standard.

HEFFNER: But you see what I find, or really what I should say I don’t find, in the report is a very strong statement that heck, here is a problem … our problem is that we took a turn in the road, in terms of Miller … we took a turn in the road which can be turned back so that we can define better what the definition of obscenity is.

LIN: Well, one of the things that we talk about in, in this report is, is the following: much of the material … we say this in the Report … much of the material that is available on the Internet today … if in print would have been prosecuted, would have … and was … prosecuted under the anti-obscenity laws when it was in print, 15 … in the late eighties and very early nineties.

HEFFNER: Successfully.

LIN: Sometimes … yes … sometimes … no. It depends. But there is…on the Internet … a question, which comes up again … the Internet came up … came of age in the mid-nineties, or so. In the period in most of the nineties there is essentially no, very, very little Federal prosecution of the obscenity laws. And so this leaves the … given that community standards do evolve, what is the relevant community now and what do those community standards say? The answer is no one knows. Because there is, because of the lack of prosecutions has left a, a vacuum in the development of, of case law on the subject. And the answer is “nobody knows”, whether standards have changed.

I’ll point out … there’s a, there’s a very interesting case, it’s one case … just decided in one court, okay … so it may not be, it’s not necessarily relevant, but it, it may be suggestive. It’s a case of a Utah … there’s a store … video store owner, who was prosecuted under a local obscenity ordinance, for distributing obscene videos. And what the defense … subpoenaed the video records of other stores and found that the per capita consumption of local, local residents [presumably they’re the ones who go to those stores] … of these “allegedly” obscene videos. Was in fact higher than the national per capita average. And then they also subpoenaed the records of the local hotels. And saw what movies patrons there were looking at. And found a very significant consumption of, of this kind of material. And the jury acquitted him. Now its one community, it’s one case … it doesn’t set any kind of a precedent, but it’s at least suggestive.

HEFFNER: Well, I have a perhaps even more difficult question to put to you. And that is, you’ve seen an awful lot of this stuff, I’m sure now …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Do you think, in terms of where we are and who we are and what we are, that this material, for our children, poses a clear and present danger? Do you think so.

LIN: I don’t know. I’ll … but what I will tell you is this … there is a lot of this material … my daughter is seven … there’s a lot of this material I don’t want her seeing.


LIN: That’s an interesting question. It’s not that … that statement is not based on the documentation of any scientific harm to her … but it offends my moral and ethical sensibilities.

HEFFNER: Are you afraid to make such a decision? Are you afraid to say …

LIN: I … no …

HEFFNER: … it offends my … and I don’t think we should see this … I don’t think my daughter should see it … and I’m concerned about the daughters … the seven year old children of people who do not care, who are not home … the children who are latch-key children … the children who cannot have this parental supervision …

LIN: I’m willing to have … one of the roles that the Academy plays in, in all this … we’re the National Academy of Sciences … okay … our job is to say what the science says. We found, as you saw in the Report that there is no basis for any kind of consensus in the scientific literature that says that exposure to this sexually explicit material …


LIN: … let me finish … is harmful to kids. On the other hand, that’s not to say that every bad thing that can happen to a kid can necessarily be reflected in the scientific literature. Our job is to say where science ends.

HEFFNER: What happened to the Surgeon General’s Reports of many years ago, and of more recent times … where the Surgeon General said in his report, in terms of let’s say violence in the media … that there was a consensus of opinion that violence in the media had a bad impact, a negative impact upon children.

LIN: We’re not …we …

HEFFNER: You dismiss that?

LIN: … no, I don’t dismiss that at all. We … our primary focus here was sexually explicit material … not violence. And extrapolating from violence to sexually explicit material is dangerous. For a variety of reasons which we go into in, in the Report. On the question of sexually explicit material … pornography … I, I note that there were two Surgeon General’s Reports that came to opposite conclusions. Like the one in 1970 came to one … not Surgeon General … two government reports … can’t remember the citations … that, that one in 1970 and one in ‘86 that came to basically opposite conclusions on, on the subject. I want to say it’s that same … that I don’t want my child to do this … doesn’t have to be a scientific statement. It doesn’t have to be a scientifically based statement …

HEFFNER: Doe is have …

LIN: … scientific statement …

HEFFNER: … does it have to be if we, as a community, the national community, say “we don’t want our children to be exploited by this material?”

LIN: That’s a different question. And I think … we’re the National Academy of Science, and we don’t …

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

LIN: … we don’t comment on, you know, on those kinds of questions. Okay. Speaking as an individual, strictly for myself, I think that what you would have to do is find some sort of … I think that the debate ought to be carried on this values issues. Okay. It should not be carried on, what I think are, are grounds that are not particularly relevant …

HEFFNER: You mean science.

LIN: About science. I don’t think science is particularly relevant …


LIN: … to this issue. Unlike violence, where I think there … where I personally believe there is a consensus on this subject. On this question of sexually explicit material, it’s not clear. I mean one of the … here’s one of the issues … okay … as an example … there’s a broad, a fairly broad consensus that more violence in some sense in society would be bad and that if you show people a lot of scenes of violence then more violence will happen. But it’s not clear that to all people, that having more sex in society would be bad.

HEFFNER: Are you concerned that we couldn’t define the difference between human sexuality and exploitative … I’d even throw in the adjective again … human sexuality … I mean can we not … certainly the concern is basically not, although there may be many who protest it, and you read their protests and they perhaps came and testified before your Commission …

LIN: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … but that there were, that we could distinguish between that which is … fits into the area of your saying you don’t want your daughter to be introduced to this material at seven or ten, 17, 27 perhaps. But where you say we can all agree … where one might say we can all agree that this is exploitative … not human sex … it’s the difference … if we weren’t on the air, I could say what I think it’s the difference between because we used to say in that rating room, that’s the difference between making love and … something else …

LIN: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: You don’t think we can do that. There would be too many people who would be upset if we tried to …

LIN: I think that’s right. And I think that there’s a further reason why it’s very hard to do that. Which is that the way we describe it in the report. That this debate over the extremes is in fact a proxy over something else.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LIN: The proxy is that … I mean what happens is that there are people who … for example … the people who want to limit the … who want to put greater controls on the stuff will tell you about all the, all the awful stuff that you can see. On which there’s, you know, on which there’s reasonable consensus. But if you actually … the concern is … that the people on the other side raise … is … that that’s not what they’re worried about at all. Okay. Or that’s only part of what they’re worried about … excuse me. They’re worried about that, but they’re also worried, as much, if not more so, about the kinds of things that I talked to you about earlier, about whether or not it’s good to have gay and lesbian lifestyles described on, on the Internet as well. And that, it’s a kind of a slippery slope argument that, that they make.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m sorry, we have about 30 seconds left … and I can’t even believe it, and I’ve run this program for a good many years. I hope that you’ll come back again some time so that we can discuss just that business, that people on the other side use the slippery slope argument … at some point the slippery slope argument has to be set aside. And we have to say we’re talking about the here and now.

LIN: I would not disagree with that at some point on it, and I think that … the slippery slope argument is an argument that’s made on both sides … you know … made by this other side, the people who oppose the … for a lack of a better term, the censors … who still think that the answer is to be found in local control … in each community deciding how it wants to proceed. And that the most effective ways of doing that involve some combination of education and technology and policy.

HEFFNER: And they’re trying to educate me to get off now. Dr. Lin …

LIN: Okay.

HEFFNER: … thank you so much for joining me today.

LIN: Okay.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.